Will Smith tries on a new cinematic persona in Focus, a puzzle box romance set in the illicit world of professional con men (and women). The movie seeks to combine the heist elements and effortless cool of Ocean’s Eleven with the smoky romance and rat-a-tat dialogue of Elmore Leonard adaptations like Out of Sight with varying results. Smith and leading lady Margot Robbie look great against the film’s colourful globe-trotting locales, but the breezy cinematic sleight of hand on display crumbles in the face of the most basic logic.
Smith brings a usually unexploited hard edge of his to the role of Nicky, the charismatic leader of a grifter syndicate. He’s detached and cool, but falls prey to the charms of the young Jess (Margot Robbie) when she unsuccessfully tries to con him. After Jess later proves her thievery chops Nicky takes her under his wing as a protégé and love interest in a dysfunctional relationship that has “bad ending” written all over it. Together they, along with some mostly nameless cohorts, head to New Orleans because that’s where “the big game” (they couldn’t secure the notoriously prickly NFL’s consent so the word “Superbowl” is never uttered) is being played and there’s plenty of opportunity for cons both big and small. Also, the area offers generous tax credits for film productions.
Those cons take various forms, with some of the more outlandish crimes reminiscent of the scene in Ocean’s Twelve when Julia Roberts plays a Julia Roberts impersonator. The “big game” con in particular relies on such a crazy twist of fate that you have to imagine the filmmaker’s intent was to make audiences gasp at the audacity of these character’s schemes. It also features character actor BD Wong seemingly having the time of his life as a crazed high-stakes gambler, which adds to the fun. The second half of Focus takes place in sun-soaked Buenos Aires and is similarly picturesque but reliant more on mundane machinations as the twists and turns pile up. F1 car races and poolside drinks replace professional football and Mardi Gras revelry, but even at a slight runtime the movie seems to languish is its homestretch.
The R-rated film features decidedly more f-bombs than the usual sanitized Will Smith fare, although Smith himself remains weirdly chaste throughout the film despite the romance at the centre of it all. If the believability of his romance with Jess wavers at times, it’s never due to Margot Robbie’s smouldering presence. After making a splash as Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street and being cast as Harley Quinn in the upcoming supervillain film Suicide Squad (again with Smith), Robbie’s star continues to rise while Smith is in need of a solid hit in the face of the debacle that was After Earth. The film does present interesting justifications for the character’s deceptions and manoeuvering as they are all, by their nature, conning one another on some level. The actors are playing actors, adding additional layers and requiring skilled leads, it’s just that when the sincere emotions come out they’re a little less believable.
Some colourful side characters get to provide needed comic relief, with Adrian Martinez’s Farhad getting some solid quips in and Major Dad himself (Gerald McRaney) stealing the show in the second half as foul-mouthed antagonist Owens. Smith tries to bring a brooding darkness to Nicky, especially as he pines after Jess when she’s with race enthusiast Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), but like the film itself he never seems to leave a distinct impression. The interplay and manipulation between characters is enjoyable enough but there’s simply not enough empathy present to provide a human anchor for the antics of these criminals.
There’s nothing wrong with being a featherweight entertainment – which Focus most definitely is – but there’s still an odd hollowness as its core. It’s as if Ocean’s Eleven had been sapped of its lived-in comradery and good-natured relationships, leaving only convoluted crimes, a jazzy soundtrack and lush cinematography. It’s all very pretty to look at, but there’s simply not much going on upstairs. Seemingly designed to be enjoyed and discarded, Focus lacks the conviction of its con man protagonist but still manages to eke by with an abundance of borrowed style. Just don’t think about it too much.
Directors: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa
Runtime: 105 minutes